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Squires Gate Factory, Blackpool

Volume 463: debated on Tuesday 29 March 1949

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[ Mr. Pearson.]

10.59 p.m.

I wish to raise tonight the question of the Squires Gate factory at Blackpool and I desire to get from the President of the Board of Trade a clear statement on certain points relating to its future use. In particular, I desire to obtain from him an unqualified withdrawal of an attack which he made on 10th March against the Blackpool Corporation and I ask him to replace that attack by a gracious tribute to the great amount of co-operation which that Corporation has shown in working with him and his Department. I wish, first, to give the background. This is a large Government-owned factory of one-and-a-half million square feet floor space, the site of which belongs to Blackpool Corporation. It was built during the war for the production of aircraft and used for that purpose by Messrs. Vickers until the end of the war. From then until March 1948, the factory was used also by Messrs. Vickers for the building of aluminium houses in accordance with the Government's housing programme. Building on the housing contract then ended and the factory has since that date been to all intents and purposes unused; that is, for a year.

At the peak of production during the war, as many as 10,000 men and women were employed there. Since the war, and until 1948, the figure had been nearer 4,000. There is no doubt that of the 4,000 who were put out of work when the factory was closed, a large number have been found employment in or near Blackpool, but Ministry of Labour figures show that in mid-January of this year there were 2,000 more men and women unemployed than there were a year ago.

With a factory of this size, two obvious considerations must arise. First, there is the importance of the factory as a national asset and the availability of the factory in the terrible event of another war; secondly, there is the very considerable part which the factory could play in providing full employment for the people of Blackpool and the neighbourhood. Both these considerations have always been in the minds of the Corporation of Blackpool, my hon. Friend, the Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Roland Robinson), myself, and—I think I can say—all the Government Departments concerned. Blackpool Trades' Council has also made its views clear.

When the aircraft contract was nearing its end in the winter of 1944–45, and in May, 1947, when it became know that the housing contract was nearing its end, most active steps were taken by Blackpool Corporation, when asked, to arrange for further use of the factory. Since 1947, many inquiries have been made verbally and by letter, and there have been Parliamentary Questions by my hon. Friend and myself. From time to time local efforts have been made to denigrate the efforts of Blackpool Corporation, my hon. Friend and myself, but in every case these have been frustrated by a simple exposition of the truth. I regret to say that recently, on 10th March, perhaps unfortunately—I am not blaming the Minister for having done this—in view of the municipal elections, these attempts to denigrate Blackpool Corporation's efforts were reinforced by a statement from the Minister. The statement was given in answer to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South.

I should say that the reason why I am speaking on this Adjournment Motion and not the hon. Member for Blackpool, South, is that I was lucky in the ballot and he was not. It would be right to say, I think, that he will agree with anything good I say but will not agree with anything bad that I say. In replying to that supplementary question by my hon. Friend, the President of the Board of Trade gave as one reason for the factory being empty the fact that the local authority—Blackpool Corporation—were unwilling to consider proposals put before them for finding re-employment in this area some two years ago. In other words, Blackpool Corporation was responsible for the factory being empty.

I will read the answer again. The right hon. Gentleman said that

"the local authority were unwilling to consider proposals put before them for finding re-employment for this area some two years ago."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th March, 1949; Vol. 462, c. 1383.]
A reasonable inference from that is what I have just made—whatever he meant by the statement. Because that statement was so much at variance with the facts, there was some doubt in the minds of my hon. Friend and myself, and the Blackpool Corporation, so I put another Question on Thursday last, 24th March. The right hon. Gentleman said that what he really had in mind was
"a resolution passed by the Blackpool Corporation somewhat earlier."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th March, 1949; Vol. 463, c. 533.]
In other words, he was not right about the dates; nor was he right about the fact that there had been any proposals. The right hon. Gentleman really made a slip in order to defend himself, and I hope we are going to hear that it was a slip and that he will apologise and withdraw it. Before I give him the chance of doing that I am going to give him the facts about the attitude of the Corporation. Since he had this fact at the back of his mind, I will start with what happened in the winter of 1944–45.

At that time the late Sir Walter Preston, of Platt Brothers, was in touch with the neighbouring Borough Council of Lytham St. Anne's, about bringing Platt Brothers to Squire's Gate after the war. At no time did Sir Walter ever put any proposals to Blackpool Corporation, even though he was invited to do so. Arising out of certain speculative newspaper reports, the Blackpool Council resolved unanimously, on 3rd January, 1945—I say unanimously because the Council at that time had some Labour Party members—that it
"is opposed to the establishment in Blackpool of heavy industries and will use every endeavour to prevent heavy industries coming to the town, but will welcome and assist in the development of any light industries which will not be detrimental to Blackpool as a health and pleasure resort."
A month later—on 7th February—it passed—not unanimously this time—a similar resolution. I cannot believe that the right hon. Gentleman objects to these resolutions. Does he object to the Blackpool Corporation wanting to keep out heavy industries from Britain's greatest and most popular holiday resort? Does he want to exchange the sea air for the smoke and fumes of heavy industry? I cannot really believe that he wants to do that, but if he does, let me tell him that the people of Blackpool and the fathers of the city do not want to do it. I want to take that point a little further. It is not only a question of heavy industries being unpopular and not in Blackpool's interests, but it is also clear that that kind of industry is wholly unsuitable for the factory itself. The right hon. Gentleman has told me so himself. It is a very high factory, erected for aircraft production. It is costly to heat. The right hon. Gentleman has said that the factory is in fact only suitable for the production of aircraft, aluminium houses, and things of a like nature.

He wrote this to me in a letter dated 10th March, 1948:
"The buildings are far too lofty to be acceptable for ordinary production of such things as textiles or textile machinery, both of which have been considered."
That completely and finally disposes of any suggestion that Platt Brothers were the right people to come to Blackpool.

I should like to mention just one other resolution passed by Blackpool Corporation on this subject. That was on 27th June, 1947, when the General Purposes Committee resolved:
"That the Council has heard with apprehension that the present contract for the factory at Squires Gate is about to expire; that the Town Clerk be requested to inform the appropriate Government Departments of the Council's fears, and to take every step possible to ensure that further work is allocated to the factory."
The Town Clerk did indeed play his part. He wrote to the Ministry of Supply—the Government Department then most directly concerned—on 5th July, 1947, asking for the fullest information possible as to the future use of this factory, and for an assurance that the change-over would be planned so as to reduce to a minimum the period during which the labour force concerned would not be fully employed. That in itself is a very good example of the fact that he and the Corporation have always been very much alive to the importance of this factory to full employment in Blackpool. The Ministry of Supply, after several prods, managed to reply on 9th March, 1948—eight months later.

In addition, the Town Clerk has directed nine substantial companies which made inquiries about the factory to one or other of the Government Departments interested. More recently, he and leading members of the Council have been involved in many meetings and discussions with representatives of the Board of Trade and other Departments, and big and important private firms. I believe there is a discussion going on at the present time which is in a most healthful stage, concerning an important and famous firm, and I can only express the hope of us all that this will be successful.

In these circumstances, surely the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw his un-justified charge against the Blackpool Corporation. If he does not think it was an accusation against them, every- body who heard it does, and certainly the Corporation were much concerned and wrote him a letter. I do not know whether he has answered it yet, but if he has not, I hope he will do so immediately after this Debate. The Corporation have co-operated most closely with him, and I hope he will say so, acknowledge it, and thank them.

These are the facts, shortly, and I hope clearly. I have tried to keep out partisan feelings, although I may say that the right hon. Gentleman's statement provoked me when I read it. I have tried to avoid provoking him for fear that we might have something worse. We are all concerned that this factory shall work again as soon as possible. The right hon. Gentleman holds in his hand certain trump cards—he decides what the rent will be, and he directs certain Government departments controlling raw materials and so forth. He is therefore the one man who can help particularly in this matter. I ask not only for a withdrawal, but for a gracious tribute to Blackpool Corporation, and for an assurance that he is doing all he can to hurry up the occupation of this factory.

11.14 p.m.

I am pleased my hon. Friend has had the good fortune to be able to raise this matter tonight. I regard it as vital for our own people in Blackpool, Lytham St. Anne's, and the whole Fylde area. It is a problem I know well. I was born in the town and brought up there. I know the great problems any seaside resort has through seasonal employment, when there is no other industry in the town. For many years I have hoped that we could establish in our town some suitable industry, which would well fit in with the amenities of a holiday resort, so that the young men and women as they grew up could look forward to some employment year in and year out, and which would not merely keep them occupied during the summer months.

I was therefore very pleased when, through the exigencies of the war, we found at the South end of the town a well-built and useful factory. During the war it gave employment to thousands of people from outside as well as within the town. It was the fervent wish of everyone in the town to see that it continued to provide employment after the war. The Corporation began to raise the matter with the Ministries as early as the end of 1944, because they wanted to be sure of continuity of employment for their people. Employment was provided for a while through the aluminium houses, but since that came to an end that vast factory has been idle, and in what are known as days of full employment we have an oasis of unemployment, with some 4,000 people out of work, in that area. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would feel that we were not doing our duty if we were not always knocking at the door to see what we could do to help these people to get employment. I hope he will take advantage of this short Debate tonight to tell us what hope of employment he can offer to these people. That is our main purpose, to see that the people get work. It is not a matter of party recrimination from either side.

There is the other problem about which I asked a Question in the House some weeks ago. I pointed out that some 4,000 people were out of work and asked the Minister whether, seeing that he had been aware of it for over two years, something could be done. Though at the time, in the heat of the moment, he used the words, "I am not aware of anything of the kind," he must have known that 4,000 people were out of work. He threw out the suggestion that Blackpool Corporation had turned down proposals two years ago. Honestly I do not know what they were. I have followed the whole history of these negotiations, I have records of all that has taken place and I can only assume from the information I have, or shall I say gossip, that the President of the Board of Trade is perhaps thinking of Platt Brothers, though that is going away back to 1944. As my right hon. Friend has said, no proposal was made by them to the Blackpool Corporation.

We all want to get together and make a success of this factory. I give the Minister credit for good faith and I am sure he as well as us wants to see that factory going. But he is going the wrong way about it. He is not creating the right atmosphere when we have this sort of recrimination thrown out the other day which cast some blame on Blackpool Corporation for turning down proposals, about which the Minister himself seems to have been doubtful. The Corporation have tried their utmost to be helpful. They have already passed on nine proposals to the Ministry of Supply and seven to the Board of Trade and they have assisted with many other proposals that have gone indirectly through Government Departments. Corporation officials have been going backwards and forwards between Blackpool and London for some time now. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will clear the situation and try not to cast blame on people trying to be helpful, so that all will work together to achieve the desired result.

11.18 p.m.

I am certain from what has been said tonight and in previous discussions that both hon. Gentlemen realise the great difficulties which this problem presents owing especially to the size and nature of the buildings involved. These buildings cover an area of a little under 1,500,000 square feet, of which over one half is concentrated in a single large lofty central building averaging 50 feet in height. Around this is grouped a number of other smaller buildings most of which are almost equally lofty.

In the middle of 1945 Vickers Armstrong Limited, the occupying contractors, told the Board of Trade that they would not be able to vacate the factory at the end of their war production, as expected, but that they intended to retain this factory for some time for the manufacture of aluminium houses, a very suitable use for these premises. In May, 1947, the Ministry of Supply first announced that the aluminium house programme would end early in 1948, and in September of that year they formally told the Board of Trade that the factory was to become surplus and would be available for re-allocation the following April. It was in the knowledge that the manufacture of aluminium houses was a purely temporary programme—and nobody ever expected it to be otherwise—that the Board of Trade has kept this factory in mind in discussions with applications for factory space. The buildings are suitable only for a narrow range of manufacture. They are far too lofty, too expensive to heat, etc., for any type of light manufacture which does not require abnormal head room.

There are difficulties about using them for several types of heavy industry and for textile manufacture. All of us would have been glad to have seen a textile firm established in Blackpool, if it had not been for the unsuitability of these premises. By 1948—I am dealing now with the history of the factory, before coming to the other question—no promising applications for the factory as a whole had been found and the best prospect had been found to be a collection of applications from light engineering firms anxious to obtain small factories of between 10,000 and 50,000 square feet and apparently willing to consider sections of the smaller buildings of the Squires Gate Factory if satisfactory arrangements for servicing and so forth could be made. But investigation showed—and I think the Corporation and the Department were agreed on this—that it would be impossible to convert such a large factory for an industrial trading concern, even if the Government had the power to do so. There was also the question whether between us we could have found a management willing to take it on and be responsible for all these services. I do not want to say too much about the present position because, as the hon. Member who raised this matter tonight has said, preliminary negotiations with a world famous aircraft firm are in progress at the moment, including the problems of making the airfield suitable for modern types of aircraft.

As the two hon. Members both well know, about 200,000 square feet of the factory are to be used for the repair of Government vehicles, employing 450 men and 50 women. Of course, on this matter the Corporation were consulted, and they welcomed the proposal. I am sure that both hon. Members have appreciated the great difficulties with which the Department has been faced in attempting to find suitable tenants for this factory. As I said to the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Roland Robinson) the Board of Trade has no power to direct private industries into Blackpool or anywhere else. I am certain that neither hon. Members, nor any of the hon. Members of the Party to which they belong, would suggest that the Board of Trade should take such powers. But without such powers I am sure they will realise the great difficulties which the Department is facing.

But to put the blame for these difficulties on the Board of Trade, as the hon. Member for Blackpool, South, did in that supplementary question two and a half weeks ago, was, in my submission, unjustified. When tonight the hon. Member complained about the atmosphere which he thinks I have created, I would suggest to him that the first stone was thrown by him in that quite provocative and unnecessary supplementary question. The suggestion has been made by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Low) that the matter has become a matter of municipal politics. I do not know anything about that.

I said that it might become a matter of municipal politics, not that it has become.

I did not know anything about that, certainly on 10th March. I would like to say clearly that if the suggestion is being made, or implied, that anyone in Blackpool of any party—and I do not want to interfere in the municipal politics of Blackpool, least of all—that hon. Members for Blackpool have been failing in their duty to bring this matter almost eternally and continually before the Government, those who make the suggestion are very wrong indeed. No one has been more importunate in pressing the claims of the municipality than these two hon. Gentlemen. But to put the blame for the difficulties on the Board of Trade, as the hon. Member for Blackpool, South, did, was unjustified. What he said—and I think that if he will turn up the records he will find that his version tonight was different from what he said on the day—was that the Department had taken two years to make up its mind. Tonight he said that after two years it was time something was done.

Our difficulty is in the absence of power to direct industry, which we do not possess—and I am glad to say that the hon. Member and I both feel that such powers ought not to be taken. We are all of us anxious to solve this problem. The unemployment figure, which is partly due to seasonal factors, is, of course, one of which we are aware and are all concerned about, though I think it is certainly very much lower than it was when the hon Members' party was in office. During many of those years one of the hon. Gentlemen lived in Blackpool.

I come to the question of the attitude of the Blackpool Corporation and the remarks I was provoked into making about them in reply to the supplementary question of the hon. Gentleman. In the first place, I would say that Blackpool Corporation have been extremely helpful over the past year, and indeed since the time when it became clear that the use of these premises for the making of temporary houses was coming to an end. It is true that I made clear in reply to a Question last Thursday that no specific proposals have been made by my Department to the Blackpool Corporation which the Corporation have turned down. The references which I made to the Corporation did in fact relate to the Corporation's attitude when proposals were being worked out for the development of heavy industries in Blackpool. The proposals did not actually materialise because it was decided in 1945, with the goodwill of the Corporation and of the Ministry of Aircraft Production, to have an aircraft factory there for as long as possible in the peace-time period. To quote an official record of the discussion which took place, the Board of Trade was informed that the Corporation:
"had been very disturbed about the possibility there seemed to be at one stage that it might be taken over.…for textile machinery manufacture."
But it is equally fair to the Corporation to state that such a proposal was never formally put to them; equally that no direct opposition was expressed by them to it. At the same time, the Corporation have always made it clear that, while they were anxious to see these buildings developed, to quote their letter:
"(i) partly for the development of light industries; (ii) partly for terminal buildings for an airport, the Corporation being already possessed of Parliamentary powers to provide an airport on this land and land adjacent; (iii) partly for use as a bus garage and depot for the Council's transport undertaking; and (iv) partly for use as an exhibition hall."
the Corporation, in the same letter, dated 17th January, 1945, drew the attention of the Department concerned to a resolution passed and quoted by the hon. Gentleman:
"That this Council is opposed to the establishment in Blackpool of heavy industries and will use every endeavour to prevent heavy industries coming to the town, but will welcome and assist in the development of any light industries which will not be detrimental to Blackpool as a health and pleasure resort."
The letter went on to say various things which the hon. Gentleman knows. I am not complaining of the attitude of the Blackpool Corporation. Blackpool is a national asset as a holiday resort. Certainly no Yorkshireman—as I am—could fail to pay tribute to it, and certainly I look forward to spending some more happy hours there myself this Whitsuntide. One can understand the Corporation wishing to preserve its amenities, even to the point of declaring their opposition to the development of heavy industry. But in view of the limiting purposes to which the factory is capable of being put the strong insistence of the Council on further restrictions, by entirely ruling out heavy engineering, etc., and leaving it to light industry—for which it is not really suitable—or for aircraft, has not made the solution of this problem an easy one.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-nine Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.